Trying out different research areas gave me the broad perspective that I use to succeed in my work as a grad student today
There’s one piece of advice that I would give to undergrad physical science majors: try out many different research areas in your discipline while you’re an undergrad. Not only does this give you a broad perspective of the various exciting research topics that exist, but it also lets you learn new skills, work in different group cultures, and if you plan on going to grad school, it helps you to make a more informed choice about the topic that you’ll do research on for 4-6 years.
When I was an undergraduate physics student, I had the opportunity to work in groups ranging from ultracold atoms — where I got to debug complicated electronics circuits and test my hand-eye coordination on aligning optics setups — to astronomy — where I got to analyze the composition of the oldest stars in the universe by looking at the absorption spectra of the stars’ atmosphere. These different research experiences taught me valuable lessons that are essential to how I work as a grad student researcher today: how to approach a complex problem from different angles and break it down into something doable, how to communicate with researchers who might speak different “science languages” to facilitate conversation, that research projects can “fail” in so many ways and those “failures” can spark the most creative new ideas, that reading and writing papers is an important tool for researchers to learn from each other, and that documentation is key.
I was excited to find out that the Python programming skills that I had started learning in the astronomy group came in handy when making data figures in the ultracold atoms lab. Or that the patience I developed from plowing through a complex research paper about exotic magnetic materials was the same patience that I needed for plowing through papers about squeezed light, a way to “trick” the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics by squeezing the inherent uncertainty of the light’s properties from one axis to another.
When it came time for me to join a research group for graduate school, I was left thinking that there were still so many research areas and group styles that I wanted to experience: experimental cosmology, biophysics, and so much more. Thankfully, the UC Berkeley physics department allowed the option of doing research rotations, short 2-3 month long research projects with different faculty to try out research topics and mentoring styles—exactly what I was looking for. While I didn’t have a chance to try out all that I wanted to do, I did manage to try out a precision measurement group that uses ultracold atoms to study models in particle physics, an ultrafast optics group that studies how photosynthesis works, and finally an experimental biophysics group that makes models of evolution of microbes.
I became fascinated with experimental biophysics from the start because it’s not as orderly and logical as many physics problems can be, no matter how mathematically complicated they are. For most problems in biology, we don’t yet have a way of writing down a mathematical model to describe what’s going on, because there are so many unknown factors that still need to be discovered and tested through cleverly designed experiments with cutting edge technology. I have always loved tough problems, and I thought that modeling and experimenting on evolutionary dynamics was one of the messiest that I had come across yet.
Again, I was pleased to find out that the electronics circuits that I debugged in the ultracold atoms lab gave me the meticulous logic reasoning skills that are essential to debugging a complex microbiology experiment, and that all of the quantum mechanics papers that I had worked through with tough math were paying off when looking at the math expressions describing evolutionary models. I felt that because I had interacted with people from so many different backgrounds and disciplines, I wasn’t afraid to ask questions and was able to catch on more quickly to the words that evolutionary biologists and biophysicists use to describe their work.
It took me 4 tries to find the research area I enjoyed spending time on and with and the people in a research group that I enjoyed spending time with. For some people, they may be fascinated with the first research topic that you try, whereas the rest of us will bounce around to work on whatever interesting problems present themselves in different research areas. If you’re in the latter camp, like me, trying out different research topics will give the broad perspective that makes it easier to make this tough decision, and your time as an undergrad is the best time to do that. While it is important to give your best effort in any research group that you join in undergrad — not only to get a good recommendation letter but to gain experience from trying and failing — my experience and the experience of my peers has shown me that trying a few different groups in moderation can often be more educational than trying to learn all you can about a single research group. Whether you plan to go into academia or industry, getting these varied experiences will make you a better critical thinker, problem solver, and will make you more able to interact with people from different backgrounds.
*Note: for information regarding undergraduate research, check out this SWPS page, the advice section of the SPS website, and the physics department website. SWPS runs a research fair typically in the spring of every year where undergrads get to chat with grad students from a variety of different research areas. Sign up for the SWPS mailing list to stay updated on this event and others! Don’t hesitate to reach out to me or other grad students that you meet to talk more about research opportunities.